One of the most important things a person can do when they broach a subject or talk about something with other people is to have the proper context for it. Without context, things sound weird, disjointed and false conclusions are infinitely easier to draw. You don’t know what it means to call a political leader an appeaser if you don’t have a basic understanding of WWI. It’s hard to understand the diplomacy and international relations of Asia if you don’t at the very least understand WWII and Imperial Japan. History is context for the modern world and without it people engage and simply do not understand how things came to be or why they are the way they are. In her book No Turning Back: the History of Feminism and the Future of Women, Professor Estelle B. Freedman provides the reader with a broad but in depth look at the history of Feminism. She charts it’s roots, it’s founders, it’s evolving philosophies, goals and outlook at the world in a dense but easy to read volume. By it’s very nature it can’t get to specific about a lot of the key moments in the history of the movement, but Freedman nonetheless offers a sturdy and complete foundation for any person who seeks to understand the history of one of the, sadly, more controversial forces operating in the modern world.
Scholarly works often assume a bit more from their readers then they really should. They are not always built for the more casual reader to take in easily or quickly. Freedman though, does an excellent job of laying out the basics of her book from the get go. She quickly and confidently defines the word Feminism, explains why it matters, and then immediately jumps into the history of feminism, beginning with the vast political/economic/social forces of colonialism and early capitalism and the Seneca Falls Convention, which was the first women’s rights meeting. By injecting these larger ideas into the book early, Freedman is able to provide easy to understand context for why and how feminism was born. From there she spends a good amount of time explaining the various patriarchal societies of the world that women would soon begin to rebel against in earnest. For the most part, the first hundred pages or so are spent setting up the world that people live in at the time and that we are inheritors of. As a student of history, I absolutely loved this part of the book. Reading how Freedman connects feminism with many of the other movements from each time period and geographical place is a lot of fun and very informative about how the world is shaped today. Beyond just feminism, this part of the book shows us how interconnected everything really is when you really get into it. Seeing how colonialism and Marxism collide and affect each other is a powerful reminder that our world is complex and full of a whole host of reasons and precedents that touch humanity to this very day. Her ability to balance complex issue and ideas with an easy to read and understand writing style is by far the books greatest asset. I would recommend this book to quite a few more people then I would most books of this nature.
The final part of the book deals primarily with politics and other aspects that play a role in Feminism. Freedman hits on rape, social norms about sexuality, and the limits of legal reform and ideas of social justice with a firm and thoughtful prose. While a lot of this book is reciting the actions and thoughts of others, Freedman’s general view on things does get revealed a bit; while obviously a feminist, she still offers a clear eyed look at events and when they sometimes go wrong. She is also careful to talk about the whole world; feminism in the Middle East, South America and other places gets touched on and explained with just as much deftness and care as Europe and North America receive. The breadth of this book really is outstanding.
That being said, the book does drag a little bit near the end. The modern landscape of feminism is a global one full of diversity and unique strands that don’t always weave well with others and Freedman must explain a lot of different aspects in as few pages as possible. While things sometimes feel like they are being slightly underserved, I think it’s important to realize that this book really does attempt to provide a complete narrative and so something’s have to be skimmed over or just mentioned. There are plenty of footnotes and references at the end of the book for those who seek to dive deeper into any mentioned topic.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Comprehensive books of history can be a tough, somewhat boring slough of a read, but Estelle B. Freedman really does an excellent job of compiling, ordering and constructing a wonderful narrative of roughly two centuries of people, thoughts and events while still retaining a simple and straightforward prose that enables most any reader to enjoy this book. No Turning Back is a definitive resource on the history of Feminism and should be read by anybody who desires to engage with both it and the modern world in general.
Next Book: Xenos by Dan Abnett
Next Movie: To Be Decided